So Flippin' Electric: Notes on the Return of Mike Brown

The Cleveland Cavaliers have a new coach, who is also their old coach, and who is sort of a complicated case.
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Illustration by Scott Henkle, inspired by this.

1.

Mike Brown, ovoid-headed, bespectacled, bald, bigger than you’d think, re-coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, slipped into the press room before the Cavaliers home opener against no one’s Brooklyn Nets a week or so back.  It was like he never left.  He wasn’t even the focus of the conversation:  “Coach,” someone asked without preamble, “is he gonna play?”

He, in this case, was Andrew Bynum, the glorious-haired sideshow, the flier/freak signed on faith by the Cavaliers, around whom there is so little expectation that we need not ask how the crowd reacted when Bynum finally moved to the scorers’ table (a sharp intake of surprise, then joyous howling).  Lumbering, stabbingly knee-pained, and seemingly clinically depressed -- “It is tough to enjoy the game because I am so limited physically,” he’d later say. “I am struggling mentally.” --  Bynum would go on to play seven minutes and 45 seconds of uninspired but undeniably gigantic basketball that game. Those wan minutes alone led to the sort of fan-delusion rarely manufactured outside Madison Square Garden.

Mike Brown, however, was circumspect about whether he would play. “I probably won’t talk to him again before the game,” he said. “I have to iron my shirt.”

2.  

Is it good to have Mike Brown back?  Was it good that he left? He is the anti-Brian Shaw, a man who can steal head coaching jobs with a wink and a smile during an interview, who swoops in and charms billionaires with the ease of a CJ McCollum. He is also quite openly offense-averse, which is not a fashionable or crowd-pleasing or even especially reasonable position.  

Make no mistake, we Cleveland fans hated Brown the first time he was here. We blamed him for the stagnant isolation plays that made you-know-who want to blow town for teams where he could get or give assists, have friends, and not have to spend his time bitching out Sasha Pavlovic evenonemoretimethankyouverymuch.

But he’s here again, and the Cavaliers woeful defense (led, in part, by human turnstile Kyrie Irving) will be fixed, and Kyrie will keep scoring like a million points a game, and Tristan Thompson switched hands if you hadn’t heard, and Anthony Bennett is neither as fat nor as poor a shooter as you fear/think, and neither is Dion Waiters. And Anderson Varejao will play more than 40 games this season and we will, this year or at the latest next year, make the playoffs, and youknowwho will return and watch out, then.

Except none of these things are true. The history of over-compensation by owners when swinging from one coach to another is long: too old follows too young, defensive-minded follows offensive-minded, player’s coach replaces taskmaster, all along the same circumscribed pendulum’s course. The reality is a coach can probably affect just a handful of games in an NBA season: the rest is up to chemistry, players, and fragile knees and luck.

What we know is that Mike Brown is probably better for this team than Byron Scott. That is all, for now and maybe forever.  

3.

The room was ridiculously warm, and small, and I was perched on folding chairs designed for no one, jammed between the hoi polloi of Cleveland sports reporting, a boom mic operator, and maybe the only other fake reporter in the room: a kid without a notebook whose credentials named a college radio station and who grinningly turned to everyone in turn to say “Happy New Year!”  

After six or seven more questions about Bynum, the reporters remembered that the man in the room had previously been removed from the room by the billionaire in the room and asked how he felt being back: Before launching into the usual patter -- “extremely excited, there’s a comfort level of being here, let’s put ourselves in the position to compete for what everyone wants, which is an NBA championship” -- a reporter’s phone rang. Mike Brown noticed. “That is a $50 fine,” he quipped.

It was a very pedestrian joke, the sort of joke that sort-of-public people make -- the sort of joke that gives, say, a minister or a boss or a principle a reputation as a colorful wiseacre. It’s a joke we’ve all heard coaches make before. The room erupted. It roared.

4.

Unexpectedly, after Brown spoke, Dan Gilbert appeared. Short, white, sweaty, nervous, and refusing to sit, Gilbert is the anti-Mike Brown to Mike Brown’s anti-Brian Shaw. He is also, it turns out, astonishingly reticent -- not so much shy as squirrelly, unwilling to make eye-contact, and wildly evasive. And yet he fiercely believes in Mike Brown, Gilbert says: he believes Brown is more comfortable and smarter than during his first stint with the Cavaliers, and he fiercely believes that he will be able to sign Kyrie Irving to a max deal, despite being so recently and so famously burned by another franchise player.  

This is a man who, not to put too fine a point on it, made his many millions from questionable loans issued to financially strapped people who may not be able to pay them back. It’s a man who Comic Sans’ed his way out of a respectable break with a no-longer employee. One smallish man with billions of dollars.

No one could seem less plausibly to have done all that. A man in his position, I’ve always imagined, is a cutthroat, a charmer, a character at the very least. Dan Gilbert, at least that night, was none of the above. I turned to my friend Robert and said:  “Which of these two would you guess was the savvy billionaire?”

Gilbert’s jokes, though, were pretty funny. No one laughed.

5.

One thing, maybe the thing about Mike Brown is how every-mannish he is. I wrote a while back about the utter ordinariness of the presently unemployed ultra-Cav gunner Boobie Gibson, and in the process of watching Mike Brown’s perfectly conventional wit on opening night, I saw the most comfortable, easygoing man imaginable, and realized I had always been wrong: Brown was exactly the right coach for Boobie Gibson in 2007.

And not just Boobie, really. Brown was the right coach for all the members of the most ordinarily terrible finals team ever assembled: Sasha, Larry Hughes, Drew G, Eric Snow (who looks, it must be said, alarmingly like a glasses-less Mike Brown).  

Mike Brown isn’t the one who yells, isn’t the one who ruffles feathers, isn’t the one who screams. He’s the one who smiles and says, “Come on guys, we know we’re better than this.” He’s the one who can’t coach Lebron, but he is the one who can coach Boobie. The one who can bro his way into coaching the peripheral players, and the one who can do nothing for the centerpiece. Now, on a team that is almost all peripherals -- hobbled giants and shock-haired question marks and a brilliant point guard figuring things out and a big man still undecided on his dominant hand -- maybe Brown is the right man.

He’s the man who says, when asked about the Cleveland fanbase: “The fans here are just so… so flippin electric” To which we, too, swooned. Swooned like a billionaire, and wanted to hire him all over again.

6.

Mike Brown’s a man who can make Cleveland Jackson, ecstatic, wildhaired, and inexplicably able to get a press pass with a pseudonym, shout to as much of the Hairy Buffalo as would listen, “That man, I swear, I swear that man could play Beethoven with his dick.” All that, and that, too.


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